This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read.
When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.
In this haunting short story by Ricardo Lísias, the narrator contends with multiple stubborn memories, around which his narrative revolves. From an injured taxi driver in Buenos Aires, to overwhelming loneliness in Krakow, these memories are strung together to create a potent, overwhelming mixture.
I have determined why I am so upset by writers of clear sentences: they don’t struggle with memory. Their transparency denounces a simplistic intelligence. If someone cries because they are not able to render trauma into words then that person is a deep person.
I identified the root of my issue with clear-writing writers when I was in Poland. It is a very stark memory. I felt, standing more or less five hundred metres away from a small bus terminal in Krakow, the most intense loneliness I have ever experienced.
A year later, when I decided to dig up the loneliest moment in my life, I realized that it is not a bad feeling. It doesn’t hurt me or make me suffer.
From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.
Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.
Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.
It’s not often that poets become household names, but acclaimed Korean poet Yoo An-Jin had help from her contribution to the immensely popular essay collection, “Dreaming of a Beautiful Friendship,” as well as from her first novel, Anemones do not Wither, adapted into a hit television series. In these poems, sensitively translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Yu Chang-Gong, we see the other side of that popularity: the sudden loneliness amid a crowd; the naked dread of age.
Just as the place where a river ends is the sea,
do we reach the sea of tears
at the age when youth’s tears run dry?
Now my language is a roaring of waves
and if once I shout
ten million words resonate
while my gestures have turned into writhing waves.
Though it unravel ten million times,
it is all a knot of dancing steps
indeed, from forty onwards is an age of tears,
an age of tears
showing nothing but waterways.
You marry a man with the same name as your father and this doesn’t amuse you. Your father isn’t there to shake his hand or to hug you, to offer you up with these gestures to the man who will take his place. At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world. All women must feel this at their weddings, you think, in an effort to console or merely entertain yourself, or perhaps to do both things at once. Trixi is the only one there with you. That afternoon your family has reduced itself to her alone, and there’s something heartbreaking about this basic realization, but also something incomprehensibly liberating. Until recently, you thought that you would never do it, that marriage wasn’t for you. Months after meeting him, perhaps believing in the promise of a different life, one unremarkable Saturday you get married.
* * *
On the wedding night he can’t get an erection. You see him naked for the first time: his sinuous body, his long, slim dick, the scar from his peritonitis operation, and feel not a hint of excitement or conviction. Is this a typical wedding night? He touches you all over with his soft, rich kid’s hands. He licks your nipples and neck, kisses you clumsily either in desperation or impatience, perhaps fearing you or himself, but he can’t get an erection, not even when you stroke his dick. You wonder whether he might still be a virgin, whether perhaps he’s only ever been with whores, whether it isn’t women he’s into at all, whether he, like you, doesn’t understand why he got married. You wonder what your parents’ wedding night must have been like—it’s always been beyond you to imagine them young. You think about how your children won’t be able to imagine you. “You’re distracted,” your husband says. He’s a silent man, he knows how to look at himself from a distance. It’s the thing you most admire in him, perhaps the only thing you admire. Despite what you always believed, it’s something you have forgotten how to do. You feel too close to yourself, and from there everything looks blurred. “No,” you tell him, “I’m not.”
* * *